Students shun `dull' engineering

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The Independent Online
They were once heroes of their age, creating suspension bridges, railway engines, miners' lamps and roads. But today, few people want to take on the mantle of engineers such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, George Stephenson, Humphry Davy or Thomas Telford. 1997 might have been designated the Year of Engineering Success, but young people are turning their back on a profession they believe is uncool, dirty and dull.

The rejection of engineering is being felt in businesses and in university departments. British companies are unable to replace half of the 30,000 engineers needed to fill the gaps left by those leaving the profession.

Figures to be published thisweek by Natfhe, the largest university lecturers' union, indicate that of members leaving the organisation in the past four years, half were employed within engineering, mathematical sciences and physical sciences. The redundancies are partly a product of the lack of engineering students: nearly a third of 1996's engineering degree places went unfilled, 2,000 engineering apprenticeships remained untaken and the number of entrants for courses offering Higher National Diploma (HND) qualifications fell by 30 per cent.

With their need for large workshop spaces and costly equipment, the high costs of engineering courses make them obvious targets for cutbacks. Diane Davy, chief executive of the Institution of Mechanical Incorporated Engineers, said: "If young people hear that engineering departments are downsizing, it puts them off the subject and courses get closed down."

Engineering's reputation as dull, dirty and poorly-paid has inspired various attempts to improve its image. As well as the Year of Engineering Success, the Institution of Electronics and Electrical Incorporated Engineers support the Young Woman Engineer of the Year award.

"Engineering is important in every area of life," says Davy."You could be designing replacement body parts for surgery, or making life-saving medical equipment, or saving the environment by dealing with civil engineering problems in an environmentally-friendly way."